TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas Board of Regents, in response to a question from a state senator, is asking its universities to produce a list of courses that include critical race theory, an academic concept that has become a target of Republicans across the country.
The request went to all six universities — including the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Wichita State University — but became public after screenshots of an email seeking the information at Pittsburg State University were posted online.
The request was made by Sen. Brenda Dietrich, a Topeka Republican, said Matt Keith, a spokesman for the regents. Dietrich told The Star she isn’t concerned about CRT in Kansas schools but wanted more information for constituents.
Dietrich said she contacted KBOR President and CEO Blake Flanders, who lives in her district, seeking general information on critical race theory in colleges because she was unable to fully answer constituent emails on the topic.
“I think that’s really one of the most important things we do as legislators: we find out information and we pass it on to our constituents. I think we have an obligation to make sure it’s accurate,” Dietrich said.
Dietrich, a former superintendent of Auburn Washburn USD 437, is one of the more moderate GOP senators. In 2020, she defeated hard-right Sen. Eric Rucker in the primary.
Prior to receiving constituent emails last month, Dietrich said, she wasn’t aware that critical race theory had become a political discussion. She said she reached out to Flanders in an innocent effort to answer constituent questions on its use in Kansas colleges and did not intend to create a chilling effect on classrooms.
“I don’t see that we’ve got an issue here in our state. What we’re doing now makes sense,” Dietrich said.
“I’m pretty much a limited government person. I don’t like to craft or draft statutes or bills just for the sake of doing so.”
Keith said the board frequently receives requests for information from legislators on a broad range of topics.
“In this case, Senator Brenda Dietrich requested information that we did not have at the Board office, so we reached out to the six state universities to gather the information,” Keith wrote in an email.
Gwendolyn Bradley, director of external communications for the American Association of University Professors, called the request to faculty uncommon and “entirely inappropriate.”
“This type of request has a chilling effect on academic freedom. Administrators and faculty may fear repercussions, and even where there is no bill or law prohibiting the teaching of race theory, they may censor themselves,” Bradley said.
Even if the chilling effect was unintended Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said that is the likely result as other states have restricted curriculum.
“It’s gonna make administrators tell professors ‘slow it down,’” Desetti said.
Critical race theory, or CRT, is an academic concept dating back to the 1970s that scholars say offers a lens for examining how race and inequality impact criminal justice, law, health care, housing and other essential American institutions. It has been described as a way to illuminate the role of racism in a society.
But it has attracted fierce attacks from Republicans and conservatives in recent weeks as candidates and elected officials rush to the frontlines of what has become a new battle in the culture war.
Kansas and Missouri attorneys general Derek Schmidt and Eric Schmitt recently wrote that CRT would lead to “racial and ethnic division and indeed more discrimination.” The two men are running for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively.
Experts say critical race theory has been misunderstood or distorted for political purposes. In some cases, any attempts by educators to provide more context for aspects of American history traditionally glossed over in the classroom — like slavery, forced displacement of Native Americans and Japanese internment camps -- have been conflated with CRT.
The Kansas Legislature did not attempt to address CRT during the 2020 session but Missouri Lawmakers pursued legislation aimed at banning curriculum perceived by the GOP to be CRT.
KBOR’s request came to light on Thursday, when the journalist David M. Perry posted a screenshot of an email sent Wednesday by someone with a Pittsburg State University email address inquiring on behalf of the provost’s office if CRT is being taught in any classes. The email asks recipients to reply back with the information by the end of the day Thursday.
The sender and recipient of the email was redacted in the screenshot posted by Perry. Pittsburg State University didn’t immediately fulfill The Star’s request to provide the email.
On Twitter, some users expressed concern the request could have a chilling effect or urged professors to refuse to comply.
“The leadership at @pittstate should refuse to comply with this attempt at censorship. That’s what should happen now,” Perry wrote.